Is it Time to Pull the ‘Parent Trigger’?

December 14, 2010; Source: Washington Post | Where one stands on the issue of charter schools is often an emotional flash point in the debate about the future of public education. In California, a political odd couple—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—are defending a law called the “parent trigger” law, through which a conventional public school can be converted to a charter school if a majority of parents from a school (or its feeder schools) sign a petition.

The first application of this law is occurring in Compton, Calif. concerning the future of the relatively small K-3 McKinley Elementary. The nonprofit group organizing parents in favor of the conversion, Parent Revolution, says it has gotten the signatures of 62 percent of the parents, but Governor Schwarzenegger has charged that its opponents are intimidating parents to withdraw their support of the charter conversion.

On the other side, some parents are trying to rescind their signatures, claiming that Parent Revolution pressured and intimidated them for their support or misled them. Parent Revolution’s board was chaired—until December 15—by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, an increasingly well known charter school operator known, unlike many others, for being pro-union.

Longtime community organizer, Larry Ferlazzo, now a high school English teacher in Sacramento, says that the parent trigger law “provides a huge incentive to charter school operators to parachute into communities and engage in what community organizers call ‘slash and burn’ organizing” through external organizing groups like Parent Revolution. Parent Revolution has between eight and ten staff working on the McKinley organizing campaign and is reportedly funded by a number of big foundations—Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Ferlazzo suggests that Parent Revolution worked “under the radar” and made “their first contact with school officials apparently . . . when the petitions were delivered.”

This is not a liberal vs. conservative controversy. Barr is a co-founder of Rock the Vote and has solid Democratic credentials. So do other Parent Revolution board members, and of, course Mayor Villaraigosa.

There could be national ramifications from this controversy. Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel appears to favor the parent trigger there. A New Jersey state legislator has just introduced a parent trigger law for consideration. It turns out, the fate of an elementary school with some 300 pupils could affect education policy in many different states.—Rick Cohen

  • Dave C

    Considering the hundreds of billions of dollars extracted from citizens and businesses to pay for”education” in this country, parents have remarkably little say if their child happens to be zoned to a poor school. The education establishment, the schools, unions, and consultants on the district’s taxpayer funded gravy train protect the status quo at all costs. Parents should get a voucher equal to a district’s costs per grade level, and be free to send their child to any accredited school they wish. Monopoly power and tenure have lead to substandard outcomes. Correct the power balance, and maybe we’ll begin to see improvements in public education.

  • Larry Ferlazzo


    You’ve written a fair and well-balance overview of the issue. My only concern about it is when you write that I suggest they worked under the radar and didn’t make contact with school officials until they delivered the petition.

    In fact, Parent Revolution staff and newspaper articles have made it clear that this is exactly what they planned and did.


  • rick cohen

    Thanks for the correction, Larry. Much appreciated. and thanks for reading.

  • rick cohen

    Dear KSC: Thank you for the interesting background information on Parent Revolution. Please keep the NPQ readers informed of future developments as they emerge around the “parent trigger” and the involvement of nonprofits and foundations pro and con. Thanks for reading.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Dave: Thank you for your comment. As the parent of a kid in the DC public schools, I understand parental frustrations. But as KSC’s and Larry’s comments indicate, there is a question about who’s pulling the Parent Revolution strings toward what end. Empowering parents and mobilizing parents are important elements of improving public education, but that should be directed at improving the system, not just playing chessboard moves among schools with kids as the pawns (boy, do I know that from my DC experience!). To me, the power “imbalance” is in the often insufficient voice of parents and communities in the school system overall, not about moving kids among schools. The desire for democratization of education, for community voice in education is what alienated much of the DC community from the approach of Michelle Rhee and Mayor Fenty as they ran the schools here. Good luck in your efforts to improve public education wherever you are.

  • Bruno Behrend

    The “who is pulling the strings” argument falls when we look at the strings pulled in favor of the failed incumbent system.

    We know who is pulling strings of those fighting the trigger. They are unions and the interlocking directorate of the numerous groups and entities that have turned our system into a failed government monopoly.

    If Broad and Gates are the ones behind this, good for them. If anything, I wish supporters of the trigger were MORE explicit about the failed system they are trying to change.

    While this leaves out some needed details, the simplified answer to transforming (not “reforming,” which has failed) education is to completely disempower the powerful and financially interests that have turned our education system into a legalized money laundering scheme.

    The Parent Trigger changes the power dynamic, and that alone makes it good policy

  • Bruno Behrend

    One of the best solutions to promote more transparency would be to allow petitioners access to all the same contact apparatus that the school district has.

    Under the current set up, what incentive is there for organizers to allow the vastly more powerful and connected district/union system an early warning system?

    Inform the district of the petition, and every kid will have an anti-trigger screed in their back pack that night, along with the phone tree lit up like Vegas.

    I’d be more than happy to mandate full disclosure once the playing field is level.

    You make Parent Union, Broad and Gates seem 10 feet tall, when, in fact they are up against a system with de facto control of an income stream of around $550-600 billion dollars, and can focus necessary resources to ANY school or district that might fall back under “citizen control.”

  • rick cohen

    Dear Bruno: As much as many of us have concerns about public schools (mine tend toward the underfunding of them), your statements about a “failed” system and a system of “legalized money laundering” seem to me to be a bit hyperbolic. There are some 98,000 elementary and secondary public schools in the U.S. operated by 14,000 school districts. Maybe 50 million kids attend public elementary and secondary schools. I can’t think of a single school system that doesn’t want to improve, I can’t imagine that most of them could stand the infusions of capital associated with largesse from the US Department of Education and the foundations putting hundreds of millions of dollars into Education’s “race to the top.” Having explored enough charter schools, I can also suggest that I’ve seen plenty that doesn’t measure up to the expectations of their proponents. I’d suggest that whether we agree or disagree about the Parent Trigger or charter schools, the broad brush condemnation of 98,000 schools as failures or corrupt isn’t warranted. Thanks for reading.


  • rick cohen

    Dear Bruno: I’d agree that the funders aren’t 10 feet tall. It isn’t because of educational issues, but because the problems of the schools overlay problems of our society that undermine potential educational progress. Take a look at one of my upcoming newswires that touches on the Broad Foundation’s award to the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school system for its progress on improving educational performance for racial minorities, only to see racial antagonisms burst out when the predominantly white school board closed 10 predominantly minority schools so that white districts could get back resources devoted to the programs that Broad lauded. Thanks for your comments. Glad to have you as a reader.

  • Ann Deaton

    I’ve been reading this conversation with interest. What I love and appreciate is the passion for making our schools better. What is harder for me is when we attack others who share our intention to offer a better education to our young people. What are the ways we can continue to take advantage of our different ways of seeing things, and our anger when things are not right, and channel these strong emotions together to ensure positive change? One approach we are taking in Bounce is to partner with the schools, the students, the teachers, and leaders in our community to create a spirit of collaboration and a climate in our schools that is about emotional intelligence and shared responsibility. It’s an amazing challenge, and made much more doable when we see each other as partners with the same vision. Charter schools may be one answer, and partnering with our public schools to make them better could be a solution as well. What other effective solutions are people discovering and developing? What are the best ways to share these so that they can spread?

  • Bruno Behrend


    Thanks for the feedback. I understand your point about “being a bit hyperbolic,” but I won’t retract or attenuate those statements. Here is why.

    While “the system” (which I call The “Government Education Complex”) has many decent people and a wide array of “quality” district-to-district, it is still fair to call it a failure.

    America spends more and gets less than virtually every nation (Switzerland being the only nation with higher per pupil expenditure, according to a very recent Mercatus report)

    I could make the case that any more money dumped into this system is wasted, simply because there are far better models for educating a nation, particularly one as diverse as the US.

    Further, I unapologetically define “corrupt” very broadly. If a powerful interest(s) can pay for, lobby, and purchase legislation preventing competition, the system is by its very nature corrupt. (perhaps not indictable, but immoral)

    Some of my hyperbole may stem from the fact that I live in Illinois, which is the canary in coal mine for state bankruptcy driven by greedy public unions and administrative bloat. Districts in Illinois truly are legalized money laundering schemes, and there is no “equal bargaining power” between taxpayers, parents and the purchased elected officials who rubber stamp the pay raises and contracts that are handed to them.

    Being a former radio host, Illinois Lawyer, and generally well-read policy wonk, I can go from hyperbolic bomb thrower to fluent wonkese in micro-seconds.

    I don’t say things that I can’t back up. It is time to liberate the many decent people in public education from the “complex” that is a) too expensive, and b) not delivering the “educated populace” we are paying for.

    It is my view that no amount of increased money can save this system. If you care to sponsor a moderated debate on this aggressive assertion, I’ll help co-sponsor it. Any place, any time, any audience.

  • rick cohen

    For Bruno and everyone, the Charlotte-Mecklenberg story looks like it’s going to be in tomorrow’s (Friday’s) newswire. My point about the “excellent” district is that even with the best of techniques and resources, many of the challenges of education (and challenges facing teachers) are problems outside of education, issues of poverty, language, family. My daughter, for example, went to a public elementary school in DC that I thought was a pretty good school (with some fine teachers, I still go back every March to read Dr. Seuss to the kids). But the majority of the school population was kids who spoke Spanish (as Salvadoran immigrants), Vietnamese, and Amharic, so by many measures, it would appear to “test” low. But it was a very good school and did a great job–with reasonable support from the district. And at that school, the teachers I found to be most responsive and responsible were the teacher’s union leaders. So I tend to lean against the broad brush. Let’s hope more people join this conversation.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Ann: Charter schools operate within public school systems, so I’ve always viewed the better charter schools as “competitive yardsticks” with the traditional schools, basically places where new and different approaches could be tested and implemented and if they worked picked up by other schools. But there’s nothing that a charter school does that can’t be done in a traditional public school with the right kind of support and resources and with infusions of creative leadership and parent involvement. At the same time, sitting here in DC, I’ve seen my share of charter schools that aren’t, shall we say, cutting edge. The passion for making education better is fabulous, but when it turns into pitched political battles with kids as the fodder for ideological brouhahas, I find myself, other parents, and communities turned off and dispirited. Please tell the NPQ readers about what you’re doing with Bounce, if you care to. I’m sure they would love to find out. Thanks for reading.

  • Chris Baumhover

    By “poor” schools, what is really meant is students serving impoverished students. It is easy to point the finger at teachers. I am among those teachers that have sacrificed monetary gain to follow my calling and teach. However anyone who can think knows the teacher is not the sole factor in a child’s education — however talented, a good teacher cannot mitigate the effects of poverty which are powerful and multi-faceted — on children. I do not blame the well-educated for fleeing the effects of NCLBs remediation of our schools. we all want the best education possible for our children. I do not know what kind of “gravy train” teachers are riding. I myself am struggling to keep up with the cost of living and supporting my family. Most of the teachers I know are doing the same — but then I work with impoverished immigrant students in an urban district.

    [quote name=”Dave C”]Considering the hundreds of billions of dollars extracted from citizens and businesses to pay for”education” in this country, parents have remarkably little say if their child happens to be zoned to a poor school. The education establishment, the schools, unions, and consultants on the district’s taxpayer funded gravy train protect the status quo at all costs. Parents should get a voucher equal to a district’s costs per grade level, and be free to send their child to any accredited school they wish. Monopoly power and tenure have lead to substandard outcomes. Correct the power balance, and maybe we’ll begin to see improvements in public education.[/quote]